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By Marc Tucker

strong performers cover copyThree years ago, the OECD asked our organization to help them prepare what has turned out to be the first in a series of reports, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons From PISA for the United States.  We began that report by offering a hypothesis in the form of a framework for understanding why some countries are more successful than others at producing both high equity and high student performance in their education systems.

At the heart of that hypothesis was an idea whose origins go back to Peter Drucker, the famous management analyst.  In a book called The Age of Discontinuity, published in 1969, Drucker advanced the notion that the future, for both countries and companies, belonged to knowledge work and knowledge workers.  By “knowledge work,” Drucker meant work that depended on high levels of knowledge and skill, the kind of knowledge and skill that had for decades been the special province of high status professionals and senior managers in the advanced industrial nations.  Long before the rest of us caught on, Drucker saw that the future for workers capable of only unskilled and routine work (not the same thing) would be bleak in the advanced industrial countries.  The future for those countries and companies would belong to those that depended on knowledge work and knowledge workers.

But knowledge workers, Drucker said, needed a very different work environment than blue-collar workers, who had, up to that point, far outnumbered knowledge workers in the advanced industrial societies.  Blue-collar workers, Drucker said, wanted a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  Knowledge workers wanted an extraordinary day’s pay for an extraordinary day’s work.  Blue-collar workers expected to punch a time clock.  Knowledge workers would be prepared to put in whatever time was required to do the job.  But, most important, whereas blue-collar workers were content to be told what to do by management, knowledge workers expected to have a great deal of autonomy, participating at a high level in the decisions about how available resources were going to be used and how the work was going to get done.  In the blue-collar world, if the product wasn’t up to snuff, management held the worker accountable for following orders, the senior management held lower levels of managers accountable for the decisions they had made.  But in the world of knowledge work and knowledge workers, a world in which most of the really important decisions were made by the workers themselves, and the rewards to each were dependent on the work of all, the primary line of accountability would not be upwards to supervisors but sideways to colleagues.  That would not, however, mean that accountability would be dead.  Quite the contrary.  After all, most professionals, at least in the United States, can be sued for failing to observe the standards of professional practice.  The important point here was that knowledge workers were quite prepared to be held accountable, not for doing what they were told, but for doing what the profession itself said was truly professional work, as long as they had the autonomy they needed to make professional decisions about how the work was to be done.  It was job of senior management to lay out the goals, provide appropriate reward structures for achieving them, find highly qualified people to get the job done and then support them in every possible way.  Those who succeeded would be those who worked hard and were constantly improving their practice.

Drucker’s book spelled the end of Taylorism as the favored management strategy in large corporations and ushered in a radical shift in management philosophy, especially in the Silicon Valley, where knowledge work and knowledge workers reign supreme.  But that could hardly be said for schools, certainly not schools in the United States, where Taylor’s legacy was alive and well.  As we reviewed our collective experience looking hard at the strategies used by the countries with the most successful education systems, we thought we saw a strong correlation between the degree to which countries embraced forms of work organization based on Drucker’s ideas, on the one hand, and high student performance on the other hand.  We thought what we were looking at was a very strong and—even profound—embrace of a far more professional conception of the school as a workplace in the countries with the strongest performance.

But we were just offering an impression.  We had no concrete evidence to offer apart from our field notes from countless visits to a wide variety of countries over the course of a couple of decades.

We do now, though.

Toward the end of the slide deck that Andreas Schleicher is using to describe the findings of the 2012 PISA survey, you will find a series of slides that are new, that have no analogues in previous reports of the PISA data.  In those slides, Schleicher reveals a set of correlations—and lack of correlations—that confirm our impressions in a very powerful way.

teacher_in_classroomFirst the slides conclude that the data show that, “Schools with more autonomy over curricula and assessments tend to perform better than schools with less autonomy, where they are part of school systems with more accountability arrangements and greater teacher-principal collaboration in school management.”  In other words, on balance schools will perform better when they have more autonomy from the larger system of which they are a part, but only if the school faculty participates in the decisions to be made.  If those decisions are made by the principal alone, there is little or no gain from the grant of autonomy.  Indeed, the statement is stronger than that, for it suggests that we get the gains in student performance we are after only in schools in which the decisions are made when the faculty works collaboratively as they decide what to do.  And finally, we see the gains we want not just when the faculty has a major role in making the important decisions, but when the school is held accountable for the results.  Schleicher makes it clear that this finding is referring to environments in which school performance against national or state metrics is broadly shared not just within the professional education community, but with the entire community.

Second, the data show that, “Schools with more autonomy with respect to resource allocation perform better than schools with less autonomy in systems with more collaboration.”  And, “Schools with more autonomy perform better than schools with less autonomy in systems with standardized math policies.”

The first of these two statements broadens the finding.  We get improved performance not just from giving teachers more control over curricula and assessments, but also more control over the ways the schools resources are used.  But the second finding makes it clear once again that autonomy in these domains does not mean complete freedom to determine the goals of schooling or how they will be measured.  Indeed, we only see the gains we are looking for when the state has been clear about the goals, the results we want for students and the measures we will use to determine whether those goals have been achieved.  The PISA data makes it clear that, when those goals, desired results and measures have not been put in place by the state, we cannot expect to see gains for the students when we grant more autonomy to the teachers.

The data also show that the professional, knowledge-worker model will not work when  teachers are paid blue-collar wages.  “Among high income countries, high performers pay teachers more.”

Finally, Schleicher makes it clear that autonomy in decision-making for school faculty with respect to curriculum, assessment and use of school resources is not to be confused with school choice.  He reports that the data show, “…there is no relationship between the prevalence of competition and overall performance level.”

One final point.  Though this set of slides does not include an analysis of the relationship between teacher quality, faculty autonomy and student achievement, other OECD data and analysis shows a very strong relationship between teacher quality and student performance.

So how are these findings related to Drucker’s theory and the theoretical framework we offered in Strong Performers?

Drucker said that the future belonged to knowledge workers who would have much more professional autonomy to make the important decisions about how the available resources were to be used and how the services were going to be delivered.  OECD is telling us that there is a strong correlation between schools and entire countries in which teachers have that kind of autonomy and strong student performance.  But Drucker said that this would work only if the knowledge worker was willing to held accountable to the customer for the results of her work, in an environment in which the results of the work were made manifest to the customer and the decisions about how to use the resources and how to get the work done were made not just by the supervisor but by the knowledge workers themselves.  And that is just what the OECD data show.

Further, Drucker and countless researchers on modern management stated that, in a world of knowledge work and workers, top management, instead of telling workers in detail what to do, would have to be clear about the goals and the metrics to be used to assess progress toward the goals and would then have to see their roles as supporting the workers as they tried to achieve those goals.  And, sure enough, the PISA data show that the top performers are granting increased autonomy to school faculty only when they have done exactly that.

Japan-teachersAlthough the relevant data is not in this slide deck, other OECD data and analysis also show that this system only works when, just as in industry, the necessary day-to-day decisions—in this instance the decisions of school faculty—are made by highly qualified professionals.  Just as it makes no sense to expect high performance if you do not specify the goals and set common measures to track progress toward the achievement of those goals, it makes no sense to empower the faculty if you do not have highly qualified faculty to make the decisions that used to be made by management.

In an age when most workers needed only basic skills, and the industrial nations had a very limited supply of highly educated workers, it was most efficient to hire teachers who were not among the best educated and to assign others to supervise them closely.  That is, in essence, the blue-collar teaching model.  But the situation now is very different.  The job in the advanced industrial nations is to provide advanced skills and knowledge to all students, not just an elite.  That requires the very people that Drucker was talking about.  Fortunately, there is a much larger supply of well-educated workers than there used to be.  But they will not go to work in a blue-collar environment when they can get work in a professional environment.  Nor, even if they are willing to work in a blue-collar environment, will they be able to do their best work there, for all the reasons Drucker enumerated.  So the people who run national and state education systems must not only go after highly qualified teachers, they must at the same time pay them well and make fundamental changes in the work organization of schools both to attract the people they want and to enable them to do their best work.

That is what we thought three years ago, when we helped to write Strong Performers.  Now, thanks to Andreas Schleicher and his staff, we have the data to prove it.